'Think of the long term,' experts say as Covid-19 exposes water inequality

Water scarcity is a political and man-made problem to a certain extent, argues broadcaster and environmental scientist Simon Gear.
Water scarcity is a political and man-made problem to a certain extent, argues broadcaster and environmental scientist Simon Gear.
Image: Esa Alexander

Collect rainwater, maintain water infrastructure and provide long-term solutions, experts said as they reflected on water scarcity problems during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Xhanti Payi, economist and director of Nascence Advisory and Research, together with Simon Gear​​​​​​​, a broadcaster and environmental scientist, discussed the right to water and what it meant in the time of the coronavirus.

In light of the pandemic, the department of water & sanitation dispatched water tanks to rural areas. These efforts were in response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call for communities to follow hygienic practices to combat the spread of the virus.

Payi said during the webinar, hosted by the Daily Maverick on Wednesday, that while this was impressive, it did not respond to needs for a sustainable long-term supply of water.

“Covid-19 exposed the inequalities and inefficiencies of our society. This virus has been defined by washing hands ... I live alone but I have many taps in my house. [In rural areas] people have to observe social distancing to access their water. It’s not sustainable to wash hands as a routine for a family that has to share water they collect from the taps. We could have done things differently.

“In the short-term planning, we should also think of long-term goals. The water tanks are provided but we need to do more. We need to resist the temptation of using this opportunity mainly for short term,” Payi said.

He said though water had become a highlighted issue during the pandemic, the issues went beyond that.

“This is not a Covid-19 crisis; it’s a much broader problem that already existed. This crisis is more than just drinking water, it cuts through issues like land ownership.

“We’re relatively poor at sharing services. Government is also weak at making sure that water resources are shared,” he said.

He argued that  to achieve accountability and action towards combating the poor  provision of water, activism should come to the fore.

“This is the moment to have municipalities with the capacity to provide clean water supply  to assist. We need a comprehensive conversation on the access of services and to include activism in what we do,” Payi said.

His co-speaker, Gear, said the pandemic was a wake-up call.

“It’s a massive embarrassment that there are people who share one tap. SA is a relatively dry country but the shortage of water is rather man-made and political.

“Allowing water infrastructure to disintegrate has contributed heavily to the water shortage,” Gear said.

Gear said it was fascinating that the government supplied water tanks at the very beginning of the pandemic response, “which shows that water is something people worry about”.

Giving an example of a good system, Gear said Rand Water was exemplary in how a centralised supply system works. “You can still turn on the water in Johannesburg and there will be water. We have to move in a centralised direction.

“I don’t trust the municipal level government to take care of our water. The same way that government has put up geysers in RDP houses, why not put up rain catchers,” he asked.

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